Little did anyone expect 2020 to bring on the turmoil and tumults that we are now experiencing. I write this as the COVID19 pandemic continues to sweep through the US, and the rest of the world deals with secondary outbreaks. At the center of this moment, in the US and around the world, calls to aright racial injustices have broken through the social fabric, a result—yet again—of lives being taken inconsequentially. Protests have taken on proportions heretofore not seen; people of every race and ethnicity banded together to remonstrate for a better world. It’s a narrative of seeking harmony, but like an earthquake, t he narrative instead lays bare the faults of our vicious cultural and racial global history.
What does this, if anything, have to do with gender? I’ve spent some time of late in isolation pondering this: why do I think the cur- rent “moment” is akin to the “gender moment”? Here’s what’s become clear: both are part of a larger human problematic, one that suggests identity and otherness should be examined closely to determine if some should be excluded or embraced.1
The fact is, I could not dismiss the anguish I was witnessing. It circled back to the gender conflicts I had been privy to, lives I be- came part of professionally and personally. I also couldn’t dismiss the myriad students in my Human Sexuality courses over the past years of this gender “moment,” who had told me stories of sharing their questions, conflicts, and journeys with others only to be met with exclusion.
Theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us that our “moral” and “civilized” selves too often rest on excluding those we feel to be “immoral” or “barbarous.”2
For a few years, I watched my compassion toward such labeled individuals, and anger toward misinformation, grow. I could not resist the deep urge to try to put an understanding to the transgender moment for Christians I knew didn’t have good answers.
So how did I ultimately get here?
Truly, there’s nothing more exciting, or perplexing, than teaching a Human Sexuality course to college undergraduates. The perplexity grows when the course is taught in a Christian university, where what you think students don’t know, they do; and what you think they do know, they don’t! My colleague–friend, Dr. Jerry, had the serendipitous habit of opening my classroom door—in the middle of a lecture—and yelling in, “Be affirmed, all of you! Learn something!” That “all of you” certainly included me.
One afternoon, teaching this course, I waxed on about distinguishing between what is gender non-conformity and what is gender dysphoria. I was making certain to describe typical experiences and patterns in each of these classifications, while answering student questions that kept popping up.
I proceeded with my usual, “Let me give you a real-life example of gender dysphoria;” a clinical history pieced from many I had counseled.
Concluding the class, a student walked up and asked for a side- bar. “I want you to know,” he said, “that you are the first person who totally described me, up there” (pointing to the podium). Curiously, I asked, “What do you mean, me?” He said, “Your description of my life-course—you described all the elements I’ve wrestled with: my body, my mind, my soul . . . and I didn’t have a label until now. It’s about my gender!”
Unbeknown to me, a lot had come together to put this student in the class that afternoon. None more important than a rejection from his father earlier that same week, when he finally told his father he was having problems not feeling man enough. Other elements included life-long feelings he wasn’t at all the boy, later the young man, his genetics and his learning said he should be; trying desperately to excel in sports—having an avid athlete father—to “grow” into the man he was supposed to be. Of failed relationships with peer women, not knowing whether he was in some way “gay,” or otherwise. Turning it Freudian and blaming his over-doting mom, when he knew better; avoiding women, when he didn’t know what else to do. He hated his own body. Maybe he should have been born a girl —he had thought of how liberating that would have been.
Desperate for answers, he had enrolled in Human Sexuality. Maybe the shame of his feeling worthless, and the unimaginable sense of despair—that dreadful loneliness—would have a reason. He knew his “sex” had a lot to do with “it,” but he didn’t have a label for what framed his life-experience.
Everything’s in a name, we say. Dread or liberation, futility or consolation. It’s all there, waiting to be sorted—sometimes judged, sometimes vindicated, by a label. But, labels can also be deadly.
For this young man, the terms learned that afternoon gave him handles to understand for the first time what was a syndrome of emotions and physical negations. That such would be irreconcilable with self, identity, expectations, and role obligations, he’d have to now figure out (I recommended a therapist).
No youth pastor, friend, or schoolteacher had ever picked up on the self-body-identity issues. None had invested time with him to seek an understanding of what was going on. For certain he had been prayed for, encouraged, sometimes even blind-dated at the urging of friends to help him with his “shyness,” or with him being an “awkward dude.” Nobody had thought to investigate his conundrum with a dimension of identity that now we are all conscious of, gender.
I couldn’t any longer put away the stories I had been privy to hear; lives I became part of as they shared in counseling, in class, in corners of buildings and hallways, illuminating my need to do more, and more that is worthwhile. And their stories—in and out of counsel- ing—kept growing.
Over the last decade and a half, issues that surround gender have surfaced almost as with a vengeance for not having had a place, a voice, in our cacophonous society. And I became even more convinced that the church needed to attend to these lives, their questions, their exclusions, in earnest. After all, questions from gender-conflicted individuals weren’t that dissimilar to mine, the sexology researcher, the counselor. I wanted answers—they did too. As believers, weren’t they also worthy of being considered “in God’s image,” imago Dei?
The more I paid attention, the greater grew the conviction that we as the church of Jesus Christ needed to get over our fears of contagion, our fears of gendered differences unraveling our theology of male and females. We needed to get over our judgments, and reach a better understanding of our procreated selves.
Even more, I now find it imperative that the church restate again its commitment to modeling how God embraces us through Jesus’ sacrifice. In so modeling, we should become donors of our time and emotions, engaging acts of accompaniment for those walking through this gender moment. Donors include parents, pastors, other clergy, and you and me as emulators of Christ.
This book is the result. I hope to help us all understand a way through the gender moment—the “gender revolution,”—the one that has swept in and is now flooding our church doors. My hope is that this work will become a resource and a way to respond, understanding very well that there’s still a whole lot more to unravel. Let’s do it together, with Christian mercy, a Christian embrace, and hopes of reconciliation through Jesus Christ.
- Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 62.
- Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace (1996).
This excerpt is taken from A Christian’s Guide through the Gender Revolution: Gender, Cisgender, Transgender, and Intersex (Cascade Books, 2021).